Hot Reads: Which Position Matters Most at NU for the Next Decade?
Photo Credit: Paul Bellinger

Hot Reads: Which Position Matters Most at NU for the Next Decade?

July 24, 2019

ESPN released "Position U" rankings this week, a tally of which schools produce the most talent at each position. Think DBU (or QBU or LBU) and you've got the picture.

Here's the methodology for the top-10 lists by position ESPN produced:

ESPN Stats & Information dug deep into the numbers, culled details on all-conference performers, All-Americans, NFL draft picks and stars from the pro ranks, and came up with a formula to determine the official rankings for the schools best at producing quarterbacks, receivers, tight ends, running backs, linemen, linebackers and defensive backs.

We limited the debate to the BCS and CFP era, including all players who appeared in games from 1998 through last season.

That span is not the best sampling of Nebraska football. You've got basically the 1998–2003 stretch when the Huskers were still a perennial top 25 team and then the 15 seasons that followed. I'm assuming you know what the "15 seasons that followed" actually means.

In this case, it means that Nebraska didn't land in the top 10 at any position. I don't know how close the Huskers were (or weren't) at any position, but it's not like the lack of Nebraska on these lists comes as a shock. It's something of a chicken-or-egg scenario. Does Nebraska's lack of consistent top-end players at any one position explain why it's still trying to get back to being Nebraska, or does the Huskers’ ongoing race against its own history explain the lack of consistent top-end players that could offer some sort of identity?

I don't know and that's not really the most interesting question here. Rather than look back, let's look forward. Assuming Scott Frost is at Nebraska for the next decade, could the Huskers crack a few of these top 10s by the time we reach 2029?

These three positions are the Huskers' best bets in my view.

QBU: Perhaps an obvious pick, which is a testament to the track record Frost and Mario Verduzco have established over a short span. Oregon ranks No. 3 on the ESPN list at quarterback. That's not all due to the Chip Kelly/Mark Helfrich years, either, but we know the influence of that era on Nebraska now. It is a system that requires smart and talented quarterbacks, but also seems to attract smart and talented quarterbacks. It doesn't need the classic blue-chip pocket passer, and that eases the recruiting burden a bit by placing an emphasis on evaluation. That might be Frost and Verduzco's edge. Collectively, they're on a really good run. Marcus Mariota and Vernon Adams put up highly efficient numbers in back-to-back seasons under Frost while Verduzco was churning out excellent QBs of all shapes and sizes at Northern Iowa. Then the two coaches teamed up in Orlando and brought McKenzie Milton along. Now Adrian Martinez is topping rankings of breakout quarterbacks headed into Year 2. It would be strange if Nebraska became QBU given that during its greatest era, thanks to the offense the Huskers ran, Nebraska's quarterbacks were basically exempt from playing in the NFL. It would also be a pretty good sign that the Huskers were back where they wanted to be.

OLU: You could convince me that this is position is the most important one. If you could choose one position where overall excellence becomes associated with Nebraska, this is probably the one most people would pick. I have it among the most likely for two simple reasons. One, Nebraska should be able to land good offensive line talent locally. (It's one of the few recruiting advantages the Midwest has.) Two, crafting consistent offensive-line excellence is as much (if not more) about development and culture. Wisconsin ranks No. 2 here. I'm betting that, going back to 1998, Nebraska has out-recruited the Badgers for offensive linemen over that span, yet here Wisconsin is. This is one of two positions that included three Big Ten teams on the list––linebacker was the other––and all three were in the top five. If the next decade at Nebraska is to go the way Husker fans hope it almost has to include offensive linemen who can't be ignored.

DBU: Maybe this is a stretch, but here's my thinking. Defensive line is probably out. The competition on the recruiting trail for elite defensive linemen is fierce and its not a fight teams from the Midwest win that often (though Penn State and Ohio State made the list here). Linebacker seems like a better possibility for Nebraska at first glance, but the Huskers have had more defensive linemen drafted since 1998 (14) than linebackers (11). And it’s had the most defensive backs drafted over that span (17). Nebraska's last first- and second-round picks were both DBs. The competition for top-end corners and safeties is only slightly less fierce than what it is for defensive linemen, but there are more defensive backs available. It's a position where good evaluation paired with a strong strength program can help a team make up ground on the schools that have a monopoly on the 4- and 5-stars. Could Nebraska do that? It did it for a stretch under Bo Pelini and the Huskers are in a much better spot now. If Nebraska emerging as a QBU candidate is the most likely and becoming an OLU contender is the most important, reentering the DBU race offers the biggest gains. Ohio State is the only Big Ten team on the list right now, an indication of how difficult of a climb is ahead but also an indication of how much value approaching the summit could offer.

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